A colleague of mine sent me a link to Rebecca Traister’s review yesterday in the New York Times of Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring: “The Feminine Mystique” and American women at the Dawn of the 1960s (New York: Basic Books, 2010). It–like the book it reviews–is a refreshing review of Betty Friedan’s signal achievement and its importance in the intellectual and political history of American feminism. In this respect, it’s quite a departure for Coontz, whom most of us know as a prominent American historian of marriage and the family.
After decades of distancing themselves from Friedan, whose activism after the publication of The Feminine Mystique was frequently controversial, it seems like feminist historians of all ages are now drawn to reconsider her work. Her work (like any historical document or artifact) was a prisoner of its time, and since it was based on a survey of Smith College graduates, it was primarily an examination of la querelle des femmes from a white, middle-class perspective. Perhaps 50 years is now a comfortable distance from which to read all of the uncomfortable questions Friedan’s book asked and raised about itself?
But as Traister points out, so many of these conversations throughout the twentieth century about women’s roles and how to combine family life with a working life have a Groundhog Day-like quality. “Reading Coontz’s account of postsuffrage backlash — ‘Three decades of relentless attacks on feminism as antimale and antifamily had taken their toll’ — it’s hard to remember that she is writing about the 1950s. When she quotes Dorothy Thompson, who proclaimed in 1939 that the fantasy of women’s being able to meld career and family was ‘an illusion,’ we might as well be reading a modern antifeminist screed about the impossibility of ‘having it all.’”
I have to put in a word for Daniel Horowitz’s terrific biography Betty Friedan and the Making of “The Feminine Mystique”: The American Left, the Cold War, and Feminism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), which may have started the whole Friedan revival. (Those of you modern U.S. historians, please feel free to chime in here to correct my impressions.) In the course of researching his book, Horowitz discovered that Friedan was far from the typical bored housewife–she had worked after college for a newspaper with Communist Party ties, and that part of her history was something she worked hard to conceal for understandable reasons: conservative anti-communists were quick to see pink or red in all leftist movements and to try to discredit them by calling their leaders communist sympathizers.
But, this stunning discovery has never really percolated into the popular feminist vision of Friedan. If it had, I wonder if so many younger feminists would be so quick to demonize Friedan for her class bias or her homophobia. (As we discussed here last year upon the death of Mary Daly, it’s too easy to dismiss feminist intellectuals because they too were prisoners of their time, as we all are.) Horowitz’s analysis makes it clear that Friedan knew all too well what the stakes were in Cold War America, and how easily it would have been to dismiss feminism if her ties to the CP had been exposed.
One final note: I met Stephanie Coontz over a decade ago when she was an invited speaker at my former university, and had dinner with her with a few other faculty members and students. She was a truly lovely person–unfailingly gracious, and curious about our students and our research. If you’re interested, don’t hesitate to invite her to come to your campus.
(“Pink right down to her underwear” was Richard Nixon’s fanous characterization of his 1950 opponent for the U.S. Senate, Helen Gahagan Douglas.)